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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What police don't say, and how they don't say it, matters

Good intentions but bungled communications have caused the handling of a reported rape in Saratoga Springs to be blown way out of proportion, leaving the city police department open to unfair and inaccurate accusations of a cover-up or victim-blaming. As best as we can tell, it wasn’t the investigation that was mishandled, it was the communications.
People want to know if a rapist on the loose in Saratoga Springs and, if so, what are the police doing about it.
The honest answers seem to be: maybe, and as much as they could do.
The brouhaha might have never occurred had the police responded constructively to repeated requests for information from the media and the public. All they had to say was something to this effect: A woman reported to police that she was sexually assaulted at (time) (date) (general vicinity). Police are investigating to determine what happened, where it happened, and a description of the assailant. Further information will be provided as it becomes available.
Then, as further information became available, it should be released.
More than two months since the incident, pretty much all we know is that it is considered an open case, which means the police believe it prudent to not release any more details.
When police say they can’t reveal the details in a case like this, here’s what I read into it: The details are fuzzy, perhaps because the victim had trouble getting her story straight. Doesn’t mean she wasn’t assaulted; doesn’t mean the police treated it lightly; does mean the circumstances, as described by the victim, are unclear. That’s my guess.
The police absolutely cannot make public everything they know. And when their hands are tied, their tongues are tied, too. Public relations missteps from the top down have made the police look bad, and that’s a shame. Effective communications is a skill. Not everyone has it, especially under pressure.
I’d still like to hear Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen say, flat out, that the communications should have been handled differently. But, I agree with Mathiesen who, in an email responding to The Saratogian’s Sunday editorial, wrote, “There was no cover-up, no failure to recognize the seriousness of this crime, … no lack of appreciation for the subsequent safety of women in our community.”
He notes that the editorial was correct “about the need for improving the working relationship between the police and the press. From what I have been told, particularly in this case, mistakes may have been made. I would like to meet with members of the press to discuss ways that we can work together better.”
That was good news, and not surprising. I’ve only met Mathiesen a couple of times, and he struck me as reasonable and thoughtful. He has been on the City Council only since January, and hasn’t had to deal with public relations disasters and an angry public. We at The Saratogian are taking him up on the offer to sit down and talk about how to work together better, which will result in a better informed public. I’ll keep you posted.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commissioner Matthieson although a good man has a severe problem with anger management. He is an enabler not an individual who has skills in communication, providing direction or follow up on all issues not just his hot button issues. he came to office with a partial agenda and has stayed with it. He may be a professional in his field but is better suited for the Design and Review Board than the City Council. I find him easy to speak with and open to suggestions but he is caught in the party line trap is satisfying party leaders rather than the taxpayer. Both parties seem to have this problem and leadership is lacking. In recent elections the puppets get the support and the free thinkers are neglected. In this case the Union and the typical party thugs have more influence than the taxpayer. The same can be said for Commissioners Franck and Madigan and previous Finance Commissioner Ken Ivins. Saratoga Springs doesn't need party and union puppets and has a strong need for free thinkers.I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime because the goal is not the people but to get re-elected.

December 3, 2012 at 6:35 AM 

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